Arts and culture
John - starting our story chain
Interview: John Baker
By Matthew Seymour
"If you want to write a novel you have to find the original voice which is inside you that no-one else has" says York-based crime writer John Baker. Read this interview to get more tips from this sophisticated story teller.
When did you start writing?
I’ve always written. I learnt to read at a very early age and I think I started writing when I was about 5 or 6.
What was the first thing you remember writing?
When I was about 12 I remember writing a series for children that went out at children’s bedtime. I actually got paid for it.
Writing was a pocket money generator then, but then there was a gap of a long time before I actually got another cheque.
So what happened in-between?
I've done all sorts of things. I was a residential social worker for a long time in a community in the North York Moors. I was writing all the time because it was a community-based and there were opportunities to write. There were plays that we put on and things like that. But I didn't write a novel, until about the 1980s.
Did you know when you started that novel, that it was going to be a novel?
Yes I did. I’d been in love with the novel form. I wrote lots and lots of short stories. I liked the short story, and still do, but it’s very different. I like the length of a novel, the leisureliness of a novel. And I set out to write a novel, there was no doubt about it.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
It’s not inspiration. If you write professionally, you have to write every day. So you can’t wait for inspiration. I write to a theme, so I have certain ideas about what I want this particular novel to say, or what I want it to be based around.
For example I wrote a novel about blindness called 'Shooting in the Dark'. The concept behind it wasn’t a plot or character, but rather an idea that we all have blindnesses. So I wrote a novel in which everyone was blind in one way or another, including the central character who was actually blind. But in many ways she sees more than the other characters put together.
What do you wish you'd known when you set out to write your first novel?
That it all comes from you, it all comes from the individual. It’s not an accident that the novel came about in a period in history when the individual suddenly started to be taken seriously.
I know from questions I get asked, that people who want to write a novel think that there’s some magic formula, or some trick or technique to it. And they’re not quite sure what it is. But there isn’t a trick or technique. There’s only the determination to find your own voice.
What makes me want to read a particular novel is that I empathise with the voice which the novel is told in. I pick a novel up and read a few paragraphs just like everyone else does, and then I put it down or take it with me.
The difference between putting it down or taking it with me is that I empathise, I feel that this voice has got something to say to me.
What that is, is originality. It’s that I haven’t heard that voice before, or I have heard it before but forgotten about it or there’s something about it that reminds me of myself or someone else.
If you want to write a novel and you want it to stand on its own in the world you have to find the original voice which is inside you that no-one else has.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading an Irish novel by a man called Ronan Bennett called 'The Catastrophist'. It was short listed for the Whitbread prize a few years ago. It’s about the fight for independence in the Belgian Congo.
I read old novels, I don’t read new novels much. I pick things up or people give me things. I have a kind of mystic belief that books leave a trail that leads you to them. They pick us rather than we pick them.
What blogs do you read?
I read mainly literary blogs, usually they’re delivered via RSS. I do surf a little bit because I don’t know how else you’d find new things or the current things that are happening.
There are too many blogs that just say the same thing as the last thing you read. There are too many people writing blogs without actually having an original idea.
last updated: 03/06/2008 at 17:18
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